Outside Linebackers: Here’s the eighth of a series of articles, looking specifically at the NFL combine and the Packers’ drafting tendencies. (Read here for the rationale for this series, here for quarterbacks, here for running backs, here for wide receivers, here for tight ends, here for offensive tackles, here for offensive interior linemen and here for defensive ends). This article will use the combine numbers from previous players drafted by GM Ted Thompson as a guide for what outside linebackers are likely to fit into the Packers’ scheme.
Again, this is merely an attempt to make a best guess based on statistics at which players the Packers might be interested in, game tape naturally trumps combine numbers, so take all of this with a grain of salt. But I believe it will make for some interesting discussion. Also listed below are also two outside linebackers in this year’s draft who I think fit the Packers scheme the best, based on their combine numbers.
Statistics of outside linebackers linemen drafted by the Packers:
What the Packers are looking for: Again one of the biggest discrepancies with this analysis is the fact that the Packers switch to the 3-4 in 2009 under Dom Capers. Just like with my previous article on defensive ends, I have projected players who were drafted before 2009 into their most likely positions in a 3-4 defense. Luckily this isn’t as big of a challenge as it was for defensive end players as only one player, Dave Tollesfon, had to be projected to a 3-4 outside linebacker.
Of the five, two players were converted defensive ends, Tollesfon never managed to make it onto the team as was sent to NFL Europe and Jeremy Thompson was in the process of converting to an outside linebacker when a freak neck injury forced him to retire early. Brady Poppinga on the other hand was a starter in the 4-3 defense, but never seemed to be in serious consideration as a 3-4 outside linebacker; he was relegated to mostly special teams and was injured this season and will mostly likely not be returning. That leaves the two starters from the 2009 season: Clay Matthews III, who needs no introduction, and Brad Jones who became the starter after Aaron Kampman went on IR until he himself was placed on IR.
The drills that outside linebackers have the lowest relative standard deviation (thus implying highest importance) are height, vertical and shuttle. If you exclude Tollefson and Thompson, who were drafted as 4-3 defensive ends, all Packers outside linebackers since 2009 have been 6’3” with a couple of players at 6’2” (the most notable being Erik Walden). Vertical again probably is indirectly related to some other factor than a player’s jumping ability; Nathan Forster from Football Outsiders considers it a prime factor in predicting a player’s 5 year sack totals, assuming that players with good verticals will have more leg power and therefore a more explosive pass rush (anyone with an actual copy of the Football Outsiders 2010 almanac want to expand on this would be greatly appreciated). Forster also included the 20 yard shuttle into his algorithm; the shuttle shows a players lateral ability as well as his ability to change directions and his flexibility. In 2009, Clay Matthews ran a 4.18, which is considered a respectable time for a cornerback.
As for specific skills, rushing the passer is by far the most important. Pass rush traditionally comes from the outside linebackers in the 3-4; in fact the defensive line’s main priority is to take up blockers so that the outside linebackers can come in behind them and make plays. Outside linebackers however, must be multifaceted in the 3-4 as well, having the ability to drop back and cover makes the rush more unpredictable and that much more effective. For the Packers specifically, the linebacker positions are more “liberal” often times Clay Matthews and Erik Walden would line up as middle linebackers to spy on quarterbacks or to run delay blitzes up the middle.
Comparable outside linebackers in the 2011 draft (analysis taken from NFL.com):
Justin Houston Georgia/6’3”/270 lbs/4.68 40-yard dash/ 36.5 vertical/ 4.37 shuttle:
- Fits the size of a prototypical outside linebacker
- Active pass rusher
- Can also contain the run and has experience at pass defense
- Could be more consistent in pass rush
- Can get washed out
- Lacks awareness
Brooks Reed Arizona/6’3”/263 lbs/4.68 40-yard dash/30.5 vertical/4.28 shuttle:
- 100% effort type of player
- A technician at the position
- Excellent awareness
- Lacks prototypical size of a outside linebacker
- Not strong enough for run defense
- Hips and feet only adequate
Conclusion: Before 2009 4-3 defensive ends were a highly drafted position by Ted Thompson, the reason behind this is that the pass rush and pass rushing depth are vitally important for the defense, and now that the Packers are a 3-4 defense, it only stands to reason that Thompson will be drafting many defense ends and linebackers for the 3-4 outside linebacker position as well. Ironically, in 2010 no linebackers were taken, hence the rush to find free agents; perhaps even more ironic is that for the most part, free agents Frank Zombo and Erik Walden worked out pretty well. Assuming that Zombo, Walden and Brad Jones continue to improve, depth shouldn’t be an issue. But is anyone other than Matthews a dominating presence at outside linebacker? A dominant outside linebacker across from Matthews would provide greater flexibility, more pass rush and less emphasis on blocking Matthews, which would make him more effective too. If not, it would make sense to see Thompson draft high in the position.
Thomas Hobbes is a staff writer for Jersey Al’s AllGreenBayPackers.com.